When Microsoft’s revamped smartphone OS -then called Windows Phone 7 Series- hit the market a little over two years ago, the mobile landscape was quite different than the one we know today. People were still bullish on new platforms; while iOS had long since found its feet, Android wasn’t yet the juggernaut we know today. The market was also more diverse, with BlackBerry and Symbian fading but still important players, and webOS still a contender for “next big thing.” The frontier was vibrant and alive with possibilities.
All of the various players making up that frontier handled the concept of notifications differently. The iPhone still hadn’t given up its three-year-old modal notification windows, those insufferable pop-ups everyone quickly grew to hate. That left room for other platforms to improve on the notification concept. Blackberry had always gone the route of featuring icons up in the task bar alongside badges on certain icons– a model that, like the rest of the platform, stayed relatively constant throughout its rise, plateau, and eventual fall. Meanwhile, Android and webOS had developed notifications into a kind of art form; proponents of each OS aggressively touted their notification schemes when drawing comparisons to the platform from Cupertino.
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft brought its own twist on the alert paradigm, borrowing concepts from its own past and from other platforms: new messages or other system events would be announced by a banner, or “toast” notification, along the top of the display, similar to Android’s approach. The banner could be swiped away to dismiss it, as in webOS. Thereafter, the notification would remain as a numeric count within the relevant app’s live tile, akin to the icon badges seen in Blackberry and iOS.
This approach played nicely with the platform’s aesthetic makeup, then called the “Metro UI,” and was superior to the iPhone’s annoying pop-up implementation. Unfortunately, as even the first few reviews of Windows Phone 7 made clear, this paradigm fell short of the others in a crucial respect: there was no central locus, no aggregated hub of missed events.
In webOS, notifications which arrived but went unacknowledged resided along the bottom of the UI, manifesting as small icons that, when tapped, expanded into banners containing more details. Android took the concept above and beyond what Palm did, implementing the hideaway “notification drawer” at the top of the screen– a concept Apple drew heavily upon when crafting its iOS 5 analog. Older, less-cutting-edge platforms like BlackBerry and Windows Mobile featured clumsier approaches but still corralled all announcements into a single- or double-row status bar. Even platforms like MeeGo that never had the chance to thrive, knew the importance of aggregated notification screens.
The main reason for a centralized “announcement hub” is plain, and goes to the very heart of the mobile phone’s purpose in life. As we’ve discussed before:
[Smartphones] go everywhere we go for one fundamental reason: to deliver notifications to us. Notification of an incoming call, or message, or nearby friend, or news story, or that it’s our turn in Words With Friends. Inbound alerts are at least 50% of a mobile device’s reason for existing.
But we have lives. We’re not constantly glued to our smartphone screens every minute of the day. Missing some alerts is guaranteed. In fact, Microsoft went out of its way to remind us of this fact in its initial ad push for Windows Phone 7, which urged us to “get in, get out, and get back to life:”
Despite this admonition, though, the platform launched without a unified center for missed alerts. That didn’t necessarily interfere with getting “in,” “out,” or “back to life,” but caused some slight difficulty in the whole “getting the message” part. Apps that didn’t support live tiles had but one chance to alert a user to a new occurrence. If the user missed the ding and the “toast” notification, s/he had no way of knowing a message was waiting.
This year’s major overhaul, Windows Phone 8, was cloaked in much secrecy in the weeks leading up to its release, resulting in speculation that perhaps Microsoft had finally added a notification hub to the platform. Alas, as we discovered at the new version’s announcement, that wasn’t to be. Despite all the changes behind the scenes, Windows Phone’s UI remained essentially the same– notifications and all. And while that’s a serious issue, it’s not an issue for the reason everyone always cites.
I want to admit here that my opinion doesn’t align exactly with Microsoft’s. The company recently admitted that it ran out of time with respect to Windows Phone 8, and that a notification center of sorts was -and likely still is- part of the plan for the new version.
So I’m not saying a notification center for Windows Phone is a bad idea, per se; I’m saying that considering the existence of live tiles, it’s superfluous. Sure, the company could easily build in a notifications pane that would adhere to the Modern UI design language -maybe off to the left of the homescreen, as in MeeGo- but why should it have to?
In Windows Phone 8, as we note in our full review, live tiles play an even larger role in day-to-day usage of the device. The new “small” tile size, combined with the higher-resolution displays on WP8 phones, allows many more of them to be displayed on the screen at once. Users can even build an “alert sector” of their very own, in whatever shape they want, with the new tiles.
Of course, it’s not an open-and-shut case. A huge problem with the “live tiles are all you need” argument is that not all apps offer notifications via tile. Sometimes that’s because the developer doesn’t enable the functionality, and sometimes because of restrictions on Microsoft’s side. These obstacles need to be overcome in order to lend credence to the claim that live tiles solve the notification problem completely.
If that could happen, maybe alongside a middle-ground solution like stacking toast notifications on the lock screen, Windows Phone could enjoy the best of all worlds. It would preserve the importance of the live tiles as notifiers, while adding utility to a part of the user experience most agree is lacking. All this while maintaining the unique look and feel of Windows Phone 8, whose two-year-old skeuomorph-free interface still stands as a breath of fresh air to the alternatives. This is an OS that doesn’t need a new feature; it’s an OS that needs to make better use of the features it introduced years ago.
Title image source: WMPowerUser